Some of my work on Updike was discussed on The Dish with Andrew Sullivan.
Some of my work on Ross Macdonald was discussed on Pretty Sinister Books.
Here is my interview with superstar music impresario Wendy Starland.
Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize nominee Olympia Vernon.
Here is my interview with the editor of Best American Short Stories, Heidi Pitlor.
Here is my interview with acclaimed artist Emil Kazaz.

John D. MacDonald: Travis McGee & Women in the First 4 Novels


Here’s a quote about John D. Macdonald that I often see bouncing around the web (I hesitate to quote from Wikipeida, which we all know is generally stuff we can wipe our asses with, but this seems legit). “Macdonald is by any standards a better writer than Saul Bellow, only Macdonald writes thrillers and Bellow is a human heart chap, so guess who wears the top grade laurels?”  That’s from Kingsley Amis.
In this link longtime Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley gives equally high kudos and is equally concerned about the distinction between authors of thrillers and human heart chaps:
Included in the blurbs for the 1995 Fawcett Crest editions for the Travis McGee novels is this from Dean Koontz: “He captured the mood and spirit of his times more accurately, more hauntingly, than any ‘literature’ writer…”
The common theme of defensiveness – why is it there?  Well, we most assuredly know that the literati and the cognoscenti dismissed Macdonald as a hack.  Prolific beyond words, he churned out novels and stories at a mind blowing pace his entire life.  In the old school reference work World Authors 1950-1970 (published by H.H. Wilson) he says that when starting out as a young writer he kept thirty to forty stories in the mail at all times.  What a fine example of self confidence and determination!
Let’s briefly compare Macdonald with another writer, Don DeLillo, writing a similar type of passage – characters step back from the present situation they’re involved in and reflect on the greater world beyond.  This is from DeLillo’s Mao II:
“Around them in the world, people ride escalators up and sneak secret glances at the faces coming down.  People dangle teabags over hot water in white cups.  Cars run silently on the autobahns, streaks of painted light.  People sit at desks and stare at office walls.  They smell their shirts and drop them in the hamper.  People bind themselves into numbered seats and and fly across time zones and high cirrus and deep night, knowing there is something they’ve forgotten to do.”
This is from Macdonald’s A Deadly Shade of Gold:
“The stars, McGee, look down on a world where thousands of 4-H kids are raising prize cattle and sheep.  The Green Bay packers, of their own volition, join in the Lord’s Prayer before a game.  Many good and gentle people have fallen in love this night.  At this moment, thousands of women are in labor from the fruit of good marriage.  Thousands of kids sleep the deep sleep which comes from the long practice hours for competitive swimming and tennis.  Good men have died today, leaving hearts sick with loss.  In quiet rooms young girls are writing poems.  People are laughing together, in quiet places.”
I think it’s worth pointing out that Macdonald actually won what is usually considered a highbrow, literary, cognoscenti/literati type award, the National Book Award, for one of the Travis McGee efforts, The Green Ripper.





As we might expect, the Travis McGee novels indulge in a fair amount of superhero, bubblegum, cartoon or comic strip stuff, and that’s fine.  Certainly one of their primary purposes is to entertain.  But Macdonald also has other aspirations that go far beyond divertissement.  McGee is a kind of philosopher of his time – that is, he makes philosophical statements about the society he finds himself in and, periodically, about the cosmos in general.  One of his favorite subjects, if not the favorite, is Woman, the human female, both in the abstract and in the very general and particular.  His entire consciousness is so saturated with the relationship between the sexes, and his own relationships with individual ladies, that the image that leaps to mind is a sponge dunked in a glass of water – he is wholly absorbed by it.  His wanton philosophical ruminations about this subject are very complex.  This is one of Macdonald’s strongest areas. (As opposed to, say, one of his weakest areas, which is his presentation of the motives of criminals, of which there seems to be only one – greed.)  What I propose to do here is go over the first four Travis McGee novels with some care and see what Macdonald has to say about women, for now leaving out some of his other principal themes like Individualism and Society’s Failures.  As it happens the fifth McGee yarn, A Deadly Shade of Gold, is vastly superior to its predecessors and deserves an essay devoted to it alone. 


Thinking about the women who populate The Deep Blue Good-By, I’ll restrict remarks to Chookie McCall, Cathy Kerr, and Lois Atkinson, ignoring the three younger women who slice into the novel very late as part of Junior Allen’s harem – Patty, Deeleen, and Corry.  They figure into the story importantly, but in a kind of stock way for MacDonald – as part of a group orgiastic party – and so I leave them out here because they seem to function as part of a formula. I'm also not including much about Christine Kerr, Gerry Brell, or others because of temporal and spatial considerations.
Introduced on page two, Chookie McCall is “choreographing some fool thing”.  As a leader of dancers she has McGee’s admiration and respect, which is important because she shows up again in later novels.  The dynamic between she and McGee is a bit complex –he made a pass at her some months ago, she declined, she now makes one at him, he in turn rejects her.  What’s the deal?
She’s come to McGee’s houseboat to work on her new dance routing because “I had the privacy and enough room”.  But we soon see this is only partly true – she’s also come to introduce McGee to Cathy Kerr, a dancer in her troupe whom she wants McGee to accept as a client.  In fact, we soon learn she’s already arranged a meeting, without McGee’s consent or knowledge.  This is an indication of her confidence in her ability to manipulate McGee, and also a kind of roundabout way, on the author’s part, via the “show, don’t tell” strategy, of exposing one of McGee’s largest personality flaws. 
Because this is the very first novel in the series MacDonald has to get in a lot of exposition about McGee and how he works, and elect to do that here with a conversation between McGee and Chookie that really rings inauthentically; when Cathy Kerr shows up Chookie, sweating and dirty from her choreography, goes off to talk a bath so the other two can talk.  When Cathy leaves she’s still in the tub and here, in just a couple of pages, MacDonald writes forcefully and fascinatingly about their friendship/relationship.  First, a description of her:
“I guess Chook is about twenty-three or –four.  Her face is a little older than that.  It has that stern look you see in old pictures of the Plains Indians.  At her best, it is a forceful and striking face, redolent of strength and dignity.  At worst it sometimes would seem to be the face of a Dartmouth boy dressed for the farcical chorus line.  But that body, seen more intimately than ever before, was incomparably, mercilessly female, deep and glossy, rounded – under the tidy little fatty layer of girl pneumatics – with useful muscle.” 
At the bathtub she tries to seduce him, and fails – he humiliates her in the rejection, then tells her that if what she’s offering is recreational sex he’s game.  They hash it out and remain good Platonic friends.  She leaves and essentially disappears from the novel except for a few phone calls later on.
We might make the brief notation, too, that immediately after she leaves McGee picks up a babe for totally meaningless sex at the Alabama Tiger’s boat.  Did Chookie install this need in him?



Cathy Kerr, McGee’s client in this novel, referred by Chookie McCall, is “a sandy blonde with one of those English schoolboy haircuts” who overdresses for her initial consultation with McGee.  Twenty seven, with “those unmistakable dancer’s legs,” she settles in to tell McGee a disturbing tale which, incidentally, she drunkenly told to Chookie a few nights earlier (which is how Chookie came to suggest that Cathy seek McGee’s services).  Her story is sordid and complicated.
She begins when she was nine years old and her father, Berry, returned home from World War Two.  She believes, but isn’t sure, that her dad made big money illegally in the war.  In a drunken brawl, in San Francisco, he kills an officer and in prison meets a man named Junior Allen to whom he apparently blabbed quite a lot, for this Junior Allen one day appears at the Berry home “smiling”.  He moves in with the family; Cathy becomes his lover.  He keeps asking a lot of questions about the father and “Using one excuse and another, he managed to dig up just about every part of the yard.”  Evidently he finds whatever it is that’s buried there, whatever it is that Cathy’s father brought back from the war that has high value.
Later, after McGee ponders the situation and decides to take the job, Cathy tries to explain the strange hold Junior Allen has over her, the same destructive power he will later wield against Lois Atkinson.  I’ll quote from the source, apologizing for the necessary length:
I didn’t want him to have me like that, right there at the home place with my mother still alive then, and Davie there, and Christine and her two.  It was shameful, but I couldn’t seem to help myself.  Looking back I can’t understand how it could be.  Trav, I had a husband, and there was one other man beside my husband and Junior Allen, but my husband and the other man weren’t like Junior Allen.  I don’t know how to say it to a stranger without shaming myself more.  But maybe it could help somehow to know this about him.  The first time or so, he forced me.  He would be tender and loving, but afterward.  Saying he was sorry.  But he was at me like some kind of animal, and he was too rough and too often.  He said it had always been like that with him, like he couldn’t help himself.  And after a while he changed me, so that it didn’t seem too rough any more, and I didn’t care how many times he came at me or when.  It was all turned into a dream I couldn’t quite wake up from, and I went around feeling all safe and dreamy and stupid, and not caring a damn about what anybody thought, only caring that he wanted me and I wanted him.  He’s a powerful man, and all the time we were together he never did slack off.  Do a woman that way and I think she goes off into a kind of daze, because really it’s too much, but there was no way of stopping him, and finally I didn’t want to, because you get used to living in that dazy way.



I think we can all imagine what feminists would say about this passage; as far as I can tell MacDonald’s work was not ever analyzed in the academy.  The point I’d like to make is that Junior Allen seems to be a variation on Max Cady from MacDonald’s The Executioners (more popularly known as Cape Fear).  When I first read some of these Travis McGee novels in the 1980s I can remember thinking, do psychopathic lunatics like this really exist out there in the world?  It seemed dubious to me that there were any such people.  What convinced me otherwise, and really ratcheted my respect for MacDonald up quite a few notches, were cable TV programs like Forensic Files that documented all manner of real life hideous dream happenings like this. 
But back to Cathy Kerr.  Later in the novel she runs into Junior Allen and confronts him; he smashes her face into a pulp with his fists.  Of course she recovers fully – the plot requires that she must, since McGee has to settle the issue of the recovered money with her.  As he explains it all to her “She looked at it (the money) and looked up at me, eyes as attentive and obedient as a learning child.”  McGee reneges on the agreement massively in her favor.  He, destroyed over the death of Lois, almost takes sex from her as some kind of payment, but backs off.  She takes the money and leaves. 
So thus far we have the somewhat complex Chookie McCall and the comparatively simple Cathy Kerr, two good women of vastly different composition.  Lois Atkinson, another victim of Junior Allen’s, is the third major female McGee interacts with in the course of the story.  Her house, according to McGee, is one of those that “have the look of places where the blood has recently been washed away.”  Wow!  Who is this lady, and why has McGee come looking for her?  Earlier, Cathy had identified Lois as the woman to whom Junior Allen gravitated when he returned to Candle Key with money and his own boat.  They’d met when Lois brought her T-bird to the gas station where Allen worked. 
          Please allow me a brief digression to comment on something I haven’t said much about – the way MacDonald describes, writes about, his female characters.  The prose should be experienced first hand in order to really be appreciated.  Commentary can’t do it justice.  The introductory characterizations of Lois Atkinson are magnificent.  Perceptively observant, they serve to show us, the readers, how, in daily life, to look at people in new and different ways ourselves.  What better test of a writer’s relevance and importance could there possibly be?  And incidentally it’s here that McGee give us some interesting insights into himself, as he tries to make himself look “disarming”. 
McGee barely speaks the name of Junior Allen before Lois breaks down completely, both mentally and physically.  He locks her in her house, goes to send Cathy Kerr home on a bus, and summons a doctor:
“ “Several things.  Malnutrition.  That plus a degree of saturation with alcohol so she’s been having auditory hallucinations.  But severe emotional shock is the background for both the other manifestations.”
“Prognosis?”
He gave me a shrewd glance.  “Fair.  A little bit of nerve, a tiny bit of pride, that’s all she has left.  Keep her tranquilized.  Build her up with foods as rich as she can take.  Lots of sleep.  And keep her away from whomever got her into such a condition.” ”
Making a long story short, Lois shacked up with Junior Allen much as Cathy had done, and his abuse wore her down to this broken state.  McGee nurses her back to health, they fall in love, and he makes a disastrous mistake in using her as bait to nail Allen, whom he now hates with an all consuming rage.  He does kill Allen, but Lois also dies as a result of the proceedings.  The take from the recovery isn’t quite as big as he’d been expecting, and he gives the lion’s share to Cathy, disregarding their 50/50 agreement. 

But the point is: he has to endure unspeakable grief over Lois’ death.  This will be a recurring theme in the Travis McGees – he can never finally win the woman he really loves.  It happens again and again. 
Recapping McGee’s adventures with the female sex in The Deep Blue Good-By: we start with Chookie McCall, a Platonic friend to McGee (although they have both, at different times, wanted to become involved) who refers him Cathy Kerr, who has been mentally and physically tortured, and materially robbed, by Junior Allen.  Cathy is made of much stronger stuff than Lois Atkinson, another of Junior Allen’s victims, with whom McGee falls in love and eventually loses to death in the adventure designed to kill Junior Allen (which it does). 
The next novel in the series, Nightmare in Pink, ups the ante a little bit. 

The next novel in the series, Nightmare in Pink, ups the ante a little bit.  Here McGee becomes involved with four principal females; MacDonald also throws in two golden portrayals of a couple of more minor ones, the secretary Angela Morse and the call girl Rossa, whom I cannot get to because of spatio-temporal restrictions.  The off the chart plot concerns the head of a successful firm who is slowly lobotomized by nine of his subordinates and pacified with drugs so that he signs any document they put in front of him; using this methodology, they siphon off millions of dollars of profit for themselves.  At times the whole thing really pushes the envelope of credibility – for example, five of them move into an apartment with him so he can be watched around the clock; MacDonald also presents a very harsh, cruel vision here – many innocents are killed in the course of the story while the ringleader, at the end, gets three years for tax evasion and that’s all.  Story wise the whole thing is a long way from Junior Allen!
Nina Gibson is McGee’s client here; he has to travel to New York City, where she lives and where her fiancĂ© Howard has recently been killed in what has been made to appear to be a street mugging.  The younger sister of McGee’s horribly wounded and blinded best friend (they were in the service, in the war, together), Nina is “a bouffante little girl”.  She “worked on the twentieth floor, for one of those self important little companies that designed packages for things.”  Trav informs us that he “didn’t want to be within fifteen hundred miles of this darling girl”.  With a passage that would make the hair on the back of every academic feminist’s neck stand up and do somersaults, he lets us know the kinds of girls he would rather be with, on his houseboat in Lauderdale.  And so, after some antagonistic conversation back and forth and some howling despair about New York, we have this: McGee is in a place he doesn’t like with a girl he doesn’t like.  Gee, can we guess what eventually happens?
I have to say that the seemingly endless analysis and philosophizing McGee does over why he falls for Nina almost numbs this novel.  And they keep asking each other “Can you understand that?” “Do you understand that?”  But for those of us wishing to be connoisseurs of Travis McGee something important is triggered in us by this novel, a recognition: it looks like he always gets the girl and then loses her: Lois Atkinson in the first novel, Nina Gibson here, Isobel Webb in A Purple Place for Dying, most especially Dana Holtzer in The Quick Red Fox
Back to Nightmare in Pink, in order to help himself navigate the case Travis calls on a former client, seventy two year old Constance Trimble Thatcher, the “victim in a Palm Beach episode a few years ago”.  She flirts with him, makes unflattering remarks about the guests she is expecting at her ritzy Central Park apartment any moment, and puts McGee on to Terry Drummond, jet setting sexy sister in law of the lobotomized executive Armister.  McGee fondly reminisces about a girl Constance had sent to him for help: “ If there’s no pain and no loss, it’s only recreational, and we can leave it to the minks.  People have to be valued.”  That’s an important slice of the McGee philosophy of women!

Every author who’s ever tried their hand at writing fiction probably wishes they could write scenes between characters of opposite sexes like the one MacDonald writes in having McGee meet Terry Drummond. She is a real killer, a real maneater, “But the years had chopped her face.”  They have sharp, crackling, sexually tense dialogue back and forth almost immediately.  She tells him “I’m too old for you, sweetie.  But not too old to think of taking you to bed.”  But McGee won’t ne distracted - he hits hard at his reason for the meeting – he wants to work her for information about Armister.  (Let me say that I realize I am giving the plot very short shrift here, maybe shortchanging the action a bit, but right now I’m only concerned with Travis’ relationships with the ladies.  Perhaps in the future I can go over these novels more fully, with more care and attention on the overall arc and design.  But I will say this much – amazingly, as the conversation demonstrates, McGee has already figured out the broad outlines of what is being done to Armister.  Now he needs the proof, and he is enlisting Terry Drummond’s help in trying to get close to Bonita Hersch, one of the team of embezzlers who lives with Armister.  And Terry comes through in the clutch, setting up a lunch meeting for McGee and Bonita.) 
I’ve mentioned that Bonita is part of the gang involved in the horrifying, unspeakable ripoff scheme, and I thrust that’s sufficient indication of what she is made of and what type of soul she has, so I’ll just end this section with a few quotes.  MacDonald is superlative here, again.
“Her grooming was almost too perfect.  Every little golden hair was in place.  Her eyes were a pale cold gray-blue.”
“She turned those appraising eyes on me.  A sharp pink tongue-tip was momentarily visible at the corner of her mouth.”
“There was a little silken whip in that voice, and it made a nice little pop when she got her wrist into it.”
“I smiled at her, thinking that this was as nasty a bit as I had come across in a long time.  I could sense the ruthless pursuit of the career.  And her equivalently ruthless pursuit of sexual gratification.  This was the product of a dozen highly competitive offices, of skilled infighting, merciless intrigue.”
“This was a guileful, perfumed monster.  God only knows where they come from.  They clump up in the big cities.  Somehow they all manage to look quite a lot like each other.  They consider themselves sophisticates.  They buy growth stocks.  They worry a lot about their breasts and about secretarial spread.  The idea of ever having a baby is some kind of grotesque joke.  It would hurt.  And then you’d have to keep it.”





With A Purple Place for Dying I think the Travis McGee series really starts to come into its own as important writing.  (Unfortunately, in the followup, The Quick Red Fox, MacDonald goes backwards, back to the groping, tentative work of The Deep Blue Good-By and Nightmare in Pink, but not to worry – as noted earlier, A Deadly Shade of Gold is simply superlative.)
Here McGee is visiting in the great American West, and the potential client who’s summoned him out is one Mona Yeoman; they are traveling over barren, rocky terrain to a secluded house she has out in the epicenter of nowhere.  Her story is a twisting, winding one.  Her father Cube Fox was a big shot in local circles.  His partner, one Jass Yeoman, looked after his estate after he passed away.  Mona went wild in Paris with a married man, had a breakdown, was rescued by her father’s much older friend Jass - whom she ends up marrying.  Jass traveled to Paris to nurse her back to health (a curious mirroring of what McGee will do with Isobel Webb later in this novel, and of what he did with Lois in The Deep Blue Good-By.)

Mona and Jass marry in spite of the great difference in age.  However, after nine years, she’s fallen in love with a man closer to her age – John Webb, a philosophy professor – and wants out of her marriage to Jass, thinking an endless supply of money from her father’s will is due her.  Little does she know!  Her husband informs her that the estate money ran out long ago, and he has been paying her an allowance out of her own pocket.  She doesn’t believe him, which is why she wants McGee to come in.
But as she and McGee stand there talking, she is shot dead right before his eyes.  As I have been avoiding getting into the plots as much as possible here, concentrating on Travis and the ladyfolk, we’ll continue in that vein. 
MacDonald makes it very clear he wants Mona to be seen as a free spirit, free spending and sexually aggressive.  She gets a stipend of fifteen hundred a month from Jass (this is in 1964, remember) and blows it all by the middle of the month, every month, year in, year out.  It is constantly remarked about her that she has a case of “hot pants” and such:

“She’s just got a little passing case of the hot pants, McGee.”
“If we thought her dead, it might give her another week to get hid good and take the edge off that case of hot pants.”
“So she was a big creamy bitch standing beside me in her tailored tight pants…”
“Son, Mona has just into her restless time, and the thing to do is just wait it out.  She’s gone romantic as a young girl.”
“She was a cheap, vulgar, vicious sexpot.”

And so on.  As it turns out, she’s wrong about the money, but her death opens up other avenues of the case that McGee must pursue, and this leads him to yet another complex relationship, this time with the aforementioned Isobel Webb, brother of the murdered philosophy professor John Webb, Mona’s lover, whom we will discuss in a moment.  First I’d just like to point out that, as usual, there are excellent portrayals of females who appear briefly – the flight attendant Marilyn Houser; the former employee of Mona, Dolores Estobar, who figures into the plot in a big way despite her one short appearance in the text; Betty, whom the killers use as a decoy and a deflection, and who provides McGee with critical facts and news; and the linchpin of the story, Amparo Sosegado, mother to a couple of Jass’ children.  These all help serve to make this a great story.

Isobel Webb represents a recurring type for the McGee novels, so some close investigation is appropriate.


Which doesn’t mean a long investigation.  We can even overlook the outrageous, and almost insulting, plot contrivance MacDonald cooks up – McGee happens to be familiar with the exact secluded little patch of the Bahamas where the Webbs, as children, spent their winters. 
The reader will find, as I mentioned above, a curious reflection of Jass and Mona’s relationship in Travis and Isobel’s.  At one point, speaking of Mona, Jass tells McGee  “She needs a man half husband and half daddy to keep her settled down.”  What is this if not a description of the role McGee plays for Isobel when he nurses her back to life after her attempted suicide? 
As for the recurring type I mentioned above, I invite readers to compare these two passages.  This one occurs at the end of Nightmare in Pink, and concerns McGee and Nina Gibson: “One day there was the unspoken awareness that we had to get back to the world.”  And here, between McGee and Isobel, we have “Tonight the lovemaking has that first tart sweetness of impending goodbye.”

The Quick Red Fox is, compared to the other McGees I’ve studied so far, rather weak on the whole, but at the end of it Travis reflects that Dana was “one I wanted to keep” so we will try to understand why.




TBC shortly



Ross Macdonald: The Way Some People Die



       Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels can, I think, be divided into three groups.  The first is made up of the books from The Moving Target to The Barbarous Coast.  In these he’s still working for the most part in a kind of imitation of the Raymond Chandler-Black Mask style. The second group starts with The Galton Case and runs through to The Blue Hammer.  In these Macdonald is essentially operating in a genre of his own invention, locking in a formula in The Galton Case which he henceforth never veers from.  The principles of this formula include the following tenets:  1) one single culprit always commits all the murders (which by the way is also the case in most of the earlier group, though not always); 2) the source of the present trouble is always a murder that occurred many years back; and 3) Freudian psychology.  The third group is the single novel The Doomsters, in which the Chandler-Philip Marlowe influence is severed for good.  The Doomsters establishes Archer’s unique voice and cadence but the string of killings only goes back two years and doesn’t really contain strong Freudian overtones. 
          Two of the best in the entire series come from the first, early group; chronologically these appeared back to back and were the third and fourth of the eighteen, The Way Some People Die and The Ivory Grin.  Probably the masterpiece of the whole canon is The Chill because it is an effortless application of the mature formula - and the solution comes on the very last page, with no room for a breath.  In some of the later books though, in particular The Blue Hammer, we can practically feel Macdonald sweating at the typewriter, trying to make everything work.  And yet even the magnificence of The Chill depends on Freudianism for effect in a way The Way Some People Die and The Ivory Grin are wholly free of.  You may be asking, so what?
          In his book Appropriating Shakespeare the scholar Brian Vickers offers a critique of Freud and his ideas that is so devastating, such an utter and thorough act of intellectual demolition, that it’s almost embarrassing to read.  Of course, there, Vickers is concerned with Freudian literary critics who are trying to co-opt the Bard in order to push their own ideology.  In reading an author such as Macdonald, however, no argument is necessary to show that he has Freudian intentions.  It’s perfectly obvious – no one would have to twist and turn, or offer questionable analysis, to make the point.  


So we must keep in mind that in his later Archer novels Macdonald is working within the framework of a psychological belief system that, to say the least, not everyone accepts.  After all, there are who knows how many differing schools of psychology.  I’m not arguing for or against Freudian ideas, as I have no strong opinion one way or the other.  I’m simply pointing out that a complete and unquestioning commitment to them is dangerous.  Try to read a bit of Eugene O’Neill today and see how badly dated some of it seems. 
          The inability to resist a sexual come on from a very attractive person – which is the way some people die - is often a misguided ego swing.  We may think, “Wow, if he/she finds me worthy of a fling I must be the bee’s knees!”  This is the mistake Joe Tarantine – who, like Roy Fablon in Black Money, is a pivotal character we never actually meet – makes in marrying Galley Lawrence in The Way Some People Die.  She is a deadly femme fatale; unknown to him, he is being set up by Galley, who has a career in nursing, and her patient, Herman Speed.  Speed happens to be a drug dealer whom Tarantine has double crossed.  He and Galley plot Tarantine’s demise together.
          In his milestone book A Cinema of Loneliness film scholar Robert Kolker writes, of a character in one of Arthur Penn’s films, that for her “sexuality is a thing of loathing and a weapon.”  This applies to Galley Lawrence exactly, as we shall see.
          We can already sense this much – this kind of plot is very far away from what Macdonald usually worked with in his later novels.  Greed and money are the motivators here, not deep dark family issues.  A whodunit of this kind, of necessity, doesn’t allow the reader to have much sympathy for all the double- and triple- crossers, which is, again, in significant counterpoint to Macdonald’s later stuff, where he is often seeking not necessarily condemnation, but rather an understanding, of some of his murderous characters.  This novel is much, much colder.
          Something else worth observing is that Archer solves this case contingently, by accident, when the coroner McCutcheon makes a throwaway remark: “If it weren’t a patent impossibility, I’d say he might have frozen to death.”  (p. 224.  I’m using the Vintage/Black Lizard, 2007 edition.)  This is very rare for Macdonald – most of the other Archer cases are solved by logic, with a neat and almost mathematical precision.  I like this element of happenstance– it feels much more realistic than a perfect literary jigsaw puzzle. It reminds us of when we hear of a true life mass murderer found out and brought to justice by way of a traffic ticket. 
          In his great book on Macdonald’s novels Peter Wolfe wrote: “As in most of the early Archers, the private drama is more intelligently perceived and freshly described than the public one; nor are the two dramas threaded together as neatly as in the mature work.”  Wolfe is casting this truth as a negative, which, in my view, it isn’t.  Loose ends and unanswered questions are not an impediment in a story of this type.  On the contrary, when everything is tied together in a neat little bundle in the last few pages I would venture that a forced air of contrived artificiality overtakes the novel.  

          In writing about this novel I assume the reader has read it through at least once.
I offer in what follows some quick discussion about the first six chapters and then a summary wrap up. 


          Archer begins the case by driving up to the home of Mrs. Samuel Lawrence.  Upon our second reading of the novel we know that this meeting isn’t innocent, and that there is already so much going on behind the scenes, off the first time reader’s radar - the web of deceit and the layers of lies almost send us reeling.  What seems to be a prodigal child case quickly escalates into a ride through several hells.
           The mother – hopelessly ignorant, hopelessly delusional – is also concealing things from Archer (which, again, the reader does not yet realize).  Let’s explore the background events that have already taken place behind the scenes, outside the scope of the novel’s pages, as Archer meets Mrs. Lawrence:
1.     Galley has already killed Tarantine.
2.     Speed has already conned Marjorie into marriage.
3.     Dalling, impersonating a cop, has convinced Mrs. Lawrence to hire Archer.

            This is the hornet’s nest that Archer steps into.  The opening chapter is
full of Marlowe-type snarkiness, Macdonald/Archer’s deep knowledge of this part of California, sociological commentary, and the usual top of the line similes.  The first paragraph is a masterpiece of introduction.  Everything in the chapter is organized around the idea that Mrs. Lawrence clings to the past and cannot adjust to the present.  Some examples:
          “The street was the kind that people had once been proud to live on, but in the last few years it had lost its claim to pride.”
          “The third story had Gothic-looking towers at each corner, fake battlements that time had taken and made ridiculous.”
          “The contrast with the traffic I’d been fighting gave me a queer feeling, as if I’d stepped backwards in time, or out of it entirely.”
          “My sensation of stepping into the past was getting too strong fro comfort.”
          “The tea tasted like a clear dark dripping from the past.”
          This chapter serves two other important functions – it establishes Galley’s relationship to Speed and introduces Galley – the single most dominant character in any of Macdonald’s Archer tales:
          “Pretty was hardly the word.  With her fierce curled lips, black eyes and clean angry bones she must have stood out in her graduating class like a chicken hawk in a flock of pullets.”


         


        In the second chapter Archer drives to Pacific Point Hospital for a meeting with Audrey Graham, Galley’s last roommate, a character whom we will not see again.  She is recognizable as a type – the shy, modest, plain girl who is jealous of Galley’s overpowering sexuality.  Because of this she feels compelled to paint her as a whore.  I remember a quote from The Art of Seduction by Robert Greene: “…her power comes from her effect on men, and she must learn to accept, or ignore, the envy of other women.”  Audrey also enforces Galley’s connection to Herman Speed. 

          Here, as well, something that in the first chapter was displayed but not identified is explicitly made reference to – sociology.  The town “rose from sea level in a gentle slope, divided neatly into social tiers, like something a sociologist had built to prove a theory.”
          In the third chapter the richness of the novel begins to drip out slowly, like a leaky faucet.  It starts with a scene that recurs quite often in the Archer novels – a bird flies overhead, mocking Archer, and “laughs” at him.  Mr. Raisch says of himself “I’m a product of individual enterprise.”  He is another version of Tony, the saloon owner in The Drowning Pool –an immigrant who is living the American Dream, a totally self made, pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps- kind of guy.  Interestingly, there is no mention of a wife or children for him, past or present.  Like Audrey Graham, he will not show up again; also like her, and like everybody, he cannot forget Galley Lawrence.  He recounts a visit he got from some toughs looking for Galley and/or Joe Tarantine, toughs that we will come to realize are Blaney and Dowzer. 




          
          Chapter Four, which takes place at the Point Arena, continues the outright sociological commentary: “A social researcher with a good nose could have written a Ph.D. thesis about that air.”  Archer goes there looking for Speed, whom, he’s heard, is a wrestling promoter.  The janitor there, a young black kid named Simmie, is an aspiring boxer hitting a bag; nearby a black woman watches: “Her black arms rested on the top of the fence and her chin was laid on her arms.  Her great dark eyes had swallowed the rest of her face, and looked as if they were ready to swallow the boy.”  She talks to Archer, giving him valuable information about Tarantine and his mother while Simmie implores her to shut up.  As the episode ends Archer muses that the kid will see only barely moderate success as a fighter and return to “a ghetto street corner with the brains scrambled in his skull.”  This incident serves as an important setup for a later scene.
          The next chapter shows Macdonald at his masterful best – with a short cameo by a woman who appears for such a brief time that she is not even named.  After yet more sociological commentary, this time about Mrs. Tarantine’s neighborhood, Archer knocks on her door to find no one home.  He notices a neighbor in the next yard hanging clothes.  “She took a couple of clothes pins out of her mouth and called.”  What a piece of writing, what a display of powers of observation!  And then: “She disposed of the sheets in her arms and pushed the graying hair back from her face.”  Ditto!
          This lady offers that Mrs. Tarantine is at the hospital visiting her son who was badly beaten at the dock the other night.  She says he was “mugged”.  At this point Archer doesn’t know she means Mario Tarantine, not Joe – indeed, he isn’t even aware that Joe has a brother.
          At the hospital the imagery and portrayals are, again, sensational:
“The door of 204 was standing open.  Inside the room a huge old woman in a black and red dotted dress stood with her back to me so that I couldn’t see the occupant of the bed.”  She leaves; Mario Tarantine is in the bed under “a helmet of white bandage”.  His face is badly smashed; he clarifies quite a few things for the detective and off handedly reveals what will eventually be critical information – that he lives on his boat, the Aztec Queen.
        In the sixth chapter the severity of the situation falls upon Archer, and us as well – violence, in the form of Tarantine’s destroyed apartment, intrudes forcefully on the consciousness.  After eating dinner Archer narrates “I had the kind of excitement, more prophetic than tea-leaves (a reference to the tea-leaves in Mrs. Lawrence’s home earlier) that lifts you when anything may happen and probably will.”  The prophecy doesn’t take long to become true – he finds the apartment annihilated.  It’s best to let a reader absorb Macdonald’s prose about the condition of the abode in the original, without commentary or intervention.  I say this because these passages can cause us to put the book down and contemplate.  What was in the apartment that was so valuable, that would cause someone to go to this length of destruction? 
          Perhaps the point is to make us reflect on the intensity, the fury, of certain passions and desires.  What type of person allows their desires to be expressed and manifested through such acts of rage?  And what about the person who apparently has the desired object – Tarantine?  What does the fact that his apartment looks like Hurricane Katrina went through it say about his level of desperation? 
          But Archer doesn’t have much time for wondrous contemplation – someone hiding in the apartment – the professional thug, Blaney – overtakes him at gunpoint.  Within the space of two pages (p. 33-34) the following sentences appear about the man:
          “His face had a coffin look…”
          “His temples were clean and hollowed out like a death’s head…”
          “We went down in the upended casket of an elevator…”
          We see the point!



         Peter Wolfe – I still his book is the reference work of choice – has a lot of problems with this novel.  For example, he criticizes (p. 124) the decision to have Archer’s double cross of Dowzer happen “off camera”, and he also writes (p. 127) of “Ross Macdonald’s inability to portray a convincing professional criminal”.  I don’t know, but I think the following his massively convincing: “He went on eating for a while, to remind me of his importance in the world.”  I also happen to think the portrayals of Jane Starr Hammond and Joshua Severn are excellent! 
          Overall, while I understand that few hardcore Macdonald readers and critics will agree with the high place I think this novel deserves in the canon, I’d like to stand by that assessment.  There are flaws, yes, but they are of the kind that occur when the author is pushing himself, stretching, rather than comfortably laying back on cruise control.  




          

Ross Macdonald: Archerian Characteristics: The Way Some People Die

I



In studying the Lew Archer novels of Ross Macdonald I’ve tried to identify certain characteristics, themes, motifs, images – call them what you like – that crop up frequently throughout the various books.  I don’t claim that the following are particularly important or have any special significance or meaning; nor do I say this is a comprehensive list.  They are simply some things I’ve noticed in more than one of the novels.  Some of these appear in quite a few of the Archers.  In time I hope to post the results of reading through each of the books while searching for these ‘repeaters’.

Here I’ve come up with a list from the third Archer novel, The Way Some People Die, which is in some ways the absolute best of the series.  I hope to be posting a more comprehensive, thorough essay about it soon.  For page references I’m using the 2007 Vintage Crime/Black Lizard edition.

1.     The Archer code – money is unimportant, or at any rate less important than moving in and out of people’s lives.
On pps. 190 and 191 Archer refuses Speed’s bribe with “You can’t buy me.”
2. The excellence of the portrayal of minor characters.
In this novel they abound, starting with Galley’s co worker Audrey Graham, then the landlord Raisch, the aspiring boxer Simmie, the crowd at the wrestling match, the old captain at the dock where Archer and Mario go to try and find Mario’s boat, and on and on.  Excellent writing, superb characterization, throughout.
3.     The “look into the past”.
Here this only occurs with Mrs. Lawrence, Galley’s mother, and not necessarily in a way that bears on the case at hand.  “My sensation of stepping into the past was getting too strong for comfort.”  “She didn’t like the look of the present at all.” (p.5)
4.     The ecology and sociology of California.
There are a few strong passages about the sea in the novel, as well as this social commentary: “There were thousands like him in my ten-thousand-square-mile beat: boys who had lost their futures, their parents and themselves in the shallow jerry-built streets of the coastal cities; boys with hot-rod bowels, comic-book imaginations, daring that grew up too late for one war, too early for another.” (p. 135)
5.     The excellence of the similes.
From the first – “The half-armed chair closed on me like a hand” (p.5) to the last “We sat together like strangers mourning at the funeral of a common friend” (p. 242) – the standard Macdonald sets is very high.
6.     The influence of World War Two.
On p. 34 Archer recollects a brigadier general he knew “in Colon during the war” who hunted sharks in the open seas.  On p. 49 Keith Dalling tells Archer was a navigator on a PBY “during the war”.  On p. 167 Marjorie reveals that she believes the insane lie Speed told her, that he served under Patton.
7.     The convergence of the past and the present.
Not applicable.
8.     What Ross Macdonald himself called “smothered allegiance and uncertain identity”.
On p. 80 it’s revealed that Keith Dalling masqueraded as a cop and went to Mrs. Lawrence to urge her to hire Archer to find Galley.  The old woman had no idea who he really is or what his relation to her daughter is.
9.     Bitten fingernails.
“But I noticed after a while that I was tapping one heel on the floor in staccato rhythm and beginning to bite my left thumbnail.” (p.159)  “The hand crawled over the bill.  I noticed that its nails were broken and bleeding.”  (p. 174)  “Its fingernails were bitten down to the quick.”  (p. 186)
10.      Eyebrows.
“His eyebrows moved.” (p. 73)
11.     Female breasts.
“She was breathing quickly, her sharp breasts rising and falling under the blouse.” (p.55)  “Her young red-sweatered breasts leaned at the open window, urgently.” (p.116)  “She rose on her knees and elbows, her breasts sharp-pointed at the floor, the blunt gun in her right hand pointed at me.”  (p. 227)
12. Suntans.
Not applicable.
13.  A character in a case expressing surprise at how much Archer knows about them.
On p. 233 Galley starts to ask Archer, “How do you know that?” when he reveals he knows she kept her dead husband’s body in the freezer for three days.  She cuts herself off too late.
14.   Rich people are unhappy.
Not really relevant here; one of the few Archer novels in which it is not.
15.   Archer displays knowledge he shouldn’t have about the arts or literature; Macdonald cannot resist the temptation.
On p. 64 Archer observes that Dalling’s kitchen looks as if it were done by “an expressionist scene designer”.   “They watched me with great dark eyes full of silent envy, as if Achilles was fighting Hector inside…” (p. 117)  On p. 172 he uses the vocabulary word “chorybantic”. 
16.  “Something” as in “Are you a detective or something?”  “Something.”
No instance of this in this novel.
17.   Old letters.
On p. 66 Archer finds Jane Starr Hammond’s letter to Dalling.
18.    Overheard conversations.
Nothing.
19.   Eyes.
Characters’ eyes, and their states and/or conditions, are referred to so many times in this novel that I am tempted to call this a glaring flaw.  Here are the page numbers of the numerous examples: 3, 12, 15, 33, 36, 38, 42, 58, 74, 75, 86, 89, 97, 112, 125, 172, 178, 228, 233.
20.   Britishisms. 
Several characters, all of them American born thugs and miscreants, refer to Archer as “old man”.  When he eats a steak dinner he calls the French fries “potato chips”.

QUOTE OF THE BOOK:    “Parking spaces in downtown Hollywood were as scarce as the cardinal virtues.” (p. 67)




Ross Macdonald: Archerian Characteristics: The Moving Target




In studying the Lew Archer novels of Ross Macdonald I’ve tried to identify certain characteristics, themes, motifs, images – call them what you like – that crop up frequently throughout the various books.  I don’t claim that the following are particularly important or have any special significance or meaning; nor do I say this is a comprehensive list.  They are simply some things I’ve noticed in more than one of the novels.  Some of these appear in quite a few of the Archers.  In time I hope to post the results of reading through each of the books while searching for these ‘repeaters’.

Below I reproduce the list and apply it to The Moving Target.  I’m using the Vintage/Black Lizard edition from March, 1998.

1.     The Archer code – money is unimportant, or at any rate less important than moving in and out of people’s lives.  Betty Fraley offers to let Archer keep the $100,000 ransom money for Sampson if he lets her go.  He refuses.
2.     The excellence of the portrayal of minor characters.  Not as strong here as it will be in coming novels in the series, though the Sampson’s houseman, Felix, is excellently done.
3.     The “look into the past”.  Nothing.
4.     The ecology and sociology of CaliforniaA subplot of the novel concerns smuggling in illegal immigrants, and there are several intense passages about the Pacific.
5.     The excellence of the similes.  In every Archer novel they are almost too numerous to quote and mention.  Here are two: “The bitterness had come through in her voice, buzzing like a wasp.” (p. 7)  “
6.     The influence of World War Two.  “Bob Sampson was a flier, too.  Shot down over Sakashima.”  (p. 17) “I ran a town in Bavaria for two years.  Military Government.” (p.20)
7.     The convergence of the past and the present.  Nothing.
8.     What Ross Macdonald himself called “smothered allegiance and uncertain identity”.  Nada.
9.     Bitten fingernails.  Nothing on this in this novel.
10.   Eyebrows. Nothing on this in this novel.
11.   Female breasts.  “Her light brown coat fell open in front, and her small sweatered breasts, pointed like weapons, were half impatient promise, half gradual threat.” (p. 107)
12.  Suntans. “She was very lean and brown, tanned so dark that her flesh seemed hard.” (p. 5)
13.     A character in a case expressing surprise at how much Archer knows about them.  She uttered a groan of surprise and shock…”What do you know about Taggert?”  (p. 219)
14.      Rich people are unhappy.  It’s virtually a given in every Archer novel and doesn’t require any elucidation.  It’s a jaundiced view; study after study after study shows that in proportion the rich are no more unhappy than anybody else.
15.      Archer displays knowledge he shouldn’t have about the arts or literature; Macdonald cannot resist the temptation.  “And I was talking a hell of a lot, talking like somebody out of Miles Standish.” (p. 98)  On p. 166 Archer uses the word “prognathous”.   On p. 199, “sibilant”. Come on!!
16.   “Something” as in “Are you a detective or something?”  “Something.”   ““I’m not exactly sure why you’re here.  Is it to track Ralph down, or something like that?”  “Something like that.”(p. 13)
17.  Old letters.  It’s not quite an old letter but similar in function – on p. 30 Archer finds an old photo of Fay Estabrook that she had autographed for Sampson.  And two letters composed in the present play important roles.
18.    Overheard conversations.  From p. 150 – 153 Archer eavesdrops on Marcie and Puddler.  On p. 206 he does so with Troy, Marcie, Fay Estabrook, and Betty Fraley.
19.   Eyes.  “I looked down into her eyes, the eyes of something frightened and sick hiding in the fine brown body.” (p.6)  “Mrs. Estabrook looked up at us with eyes like dark searchlights.” (p. 49)   “His opaque black eyes were their own mask.” (p. 170)  “Her eyes were glistening like wet brown pebbles.” (p. 203)
20.   Britishisms.  “On the chesterfield in front of the dead fireplace…” (p. 29)

BEST QUOTE OF THE BOOK: “The operator was a frozen virgin who dreamed about men at night and hated them in the daytime.” (p.27)